FICTION : THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF THOMAS WOLFE, edited by Francis E. Skipp, introduction by James Dickey (Scribner's: $24.95; 734 pp.).

Few major American writers have generated more enduring controversy than Thomas Wolfe. To Faulkner, and to a devoted readership in the 1930s, Wolfe was the finest American writer of his time. To later generations of writers and critics he was, often as not, a verbose, formless writer concerned solely with the limited trajectory of his own life.

In this volume, all 58 of what are loosely called Wolfe's short stories are brought together for the first time. One of them, "The Spanish Letter," a vivid account of the 1936 Olympic Games in Hitler's Germany, has never before been published. In these stories, one finds ample supporting evidence for both sides of the controversy. Wolfe the redundant, philosophizing egocentric is here in full, vexing force. Yet so is the frequent wholeness of vision, the fusion of lyricism with prodigious observation that made him the envy of a William Faulkner.

These are not short stories in the current minimalist fashion, nor, for that matter, in any contemporary sense. Almost all of them were not written as short stories; rather, they were published under that guise in books or magazines, excerpted from manuscripts Wolfe intended as novels. As such, few of them are artful short stories by today's standards.

With an informative preface by editor Francis E. Skipp, and a rousing defense of Wolfe's talent in James Dickey's introduction, this is a book for students of American literature and for Wolfe connoisseurs, not for lovers of the art of the short story.

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